Fieldwork in China, or a Huge, Frustrating, Dynamic, Messy Learning Process

My fieldwork site: Kunming’s Yunnan Nationalities Village (pictured is the De’ang Village).

My past couple posts have focused on my experiences traveling in China, but haven’t really touched on my academic research, which is the whole reason I’m here!

With absolutely zero fieldwork experience and minimal preparation (see my post on Preparing to Do Research Abroad, which describes my research topic and preparation process), I hopped on a plane to China. I figured my research would be just as straightforward as I’d proposed in my grant application: I’d go to ethnic minority tourist sites and interview employees and tourists. I had no idea that a huge, frustrating, dynamic, messy learning process would await me on the other side of the ocean.

Here is an account of that process.

My first few days of research went terribly. In fact, my whole first research site was a failure in many ways. At the Ethnic Culture Park in Beijing, I didn’t find what I’d hoped and I spent my time alternating between frustration and sheer terror (walking up to strangers and trying to interview them in Chinese is scary). Finally, I concluded that Beijing was just different, and once I got to Yunnan, and its more relevant research sites, things would get better.

My first visit to the Yunnan Nationalities Village in Kunming did not go that well, either. But a couple days later, I met with Professor Wu Xiaolin, a former teacher of mine and expert on China’s ethnic minorities. I expressed all my insecurities and concerns and general lost-ness and she provided a lot of thoughtful guidance. Her major recommendations were

1. spend more time in one place, and

2. don’t try to conduct a million interviews; instead make a friend and try to gain a deeper understanding of the place from them.

The first recommendation was easy to follow. I was exhausted from traveling, and the idea of settling down in one place was appealing. I made phone calls to cancel most of my upcoming plans and decided I would just stay in Kunming for the time being, planning to focus on the Yunnan Nationalities Village. I could make more travel plans later, if I wanted to. Full of renewed hope, I even boldly extended my stay in China for an extra week. The next day, out of pure luck, I met a fellow American and ended up moving into her apartment that same day. I was happy to be settling down; now I had a home, and a sense of purpose.

The second recommendation, “make a friend”, was a little trickier. I expressed my doubts about it to several friends — how was I, an American with imperfect Chinese, to just “make friends” with someone who worked at the park? The idea had sounded so simple and easy, but once I was at my research site, it seemed daunting and impossible. After a couple more visits, I had a few interviews, a whole lot of pictures, but still no friends.

I felt like I was hitting a wall. I’d so eagerly changed my plans to adapt to Professor Wu’s recommendations, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I only had two and a half more weeks left. I wondered if I should just give up on the Yunnan Nationalities Village and go travel to other ethnic minority tourist sites, in the hopes that I could find success somewhere else. I wondered if I should just change the direction and scope of my research entirely.

So I Skyped with my Pomona professor, Dru Gladney. To my surprise, he advised me to stick it out in Kunming, and agreed with Professor Wu’s “make a friend” method, which I’d practically written off as impossible.

Persistence paid off. The very next day, I made a friend! I met a wonderful Shui minority woman named Ye Nuo. She’s very curious about life in America; I’m very curious about her background and her years of experience working at the Yunnan Nationalities Village. She has introduced me to friends who also work there and has been an all-around great source of information (not to mention she sneaks me free ethnic minority snacks when I visit and is teaching me to drive her moped!). Things haven’t gone perfectly from there, but they’ve certainly improved.

Brochure for the Yunnan Nationalities Village — that’s my friend Ye Nuo on the far right.


And I didn’t quit traveling altogether. This past weekend, a Chinese friend and I took a last-minute trip to Xishuangbanna (the tropical rainforest in the far south of Yunnan) and visited a couple ethnic minority tourist villages. We also ate lots of delicious Dai food and got caught outside in the hugest rainstorm I’ve ever experienced.

A picture from the Ganlanba Dai Minority Villages in Xishuangbanna.


I feel confident about my last week in Kunming, but I know this massive, messy learning process isn’t over yet. There will still be ups and downs. One week is plenty of time for failures and frustrations, as well as discoveries and triumphs.

On top of that, there will certainly also be some hard goodbyes.